Darid 6, 1013
Not for the first time, Benoic looked over the book of accounts he was working on and wondered just what it was that was up with Sims.
Take the family in front of him, for instance, come to ask Sir Lancelot for a place on his lands. He knew they were from Glasonland, and he knew that Glasonland was supposed to be in the middle of civil war. He knew, from his reading of Lady Guinevere’s romances and from the clear-eyed optimism he had inherited from Sir Lancelot, whose personality he bore, that adverse situations were supposed to bring out the best in Sims. Didn’t every story begin with a terrible situation, move on to some under-prepared heroes preparing to walk into certain death to fight for Truth, Justice, and what was Right, and then end with the heroes returning home in triumph? There had to be some losses along the way; Benoic knew that. But the main outlines of most tales were quite clear.
Reality, however, seemed to have missed out on that vital communication.
The two Sims in front of him, despite the fact that they had presumably survived the devastation of a civil war, three little siblings in tow; despite the fact that they had managed to make it out of the refugee camp and into Albion; despite the fact that they ought to have been in the most cooperative place in their lives … were arguing.
It was a subtle argument, one that most Servos might not have picked up on. Ambrosius certainly would have had a hard time doing so, for all that he was a keen observer with decades’ more experience than Benoic in these matters. But though Benoic was often quite confused on why Sims did what they did, he never had the least problem determining just what it was that they were doing. He supposed it was because he had been initialized by Sir Lancelot, who read Sims with the same ease that Merlin Emrys, Ambrosius’s initializer, attacked old and dusty tomes. But Benoic could see from the boy’s — the lad couldn’t have been more than thirteen or maybe fourteen, so definitely a boy in Sim terms — shoulders that he had a point he was insistent on making. And he could tell from the girl’s swaying, and slow shakes of her head, that she wasn’t at all interested in hearing that point.
Or was she a girl? Well, she was certainly female; Benoic could hardly imagine a boy with hips that rounded and breasts that supple and well-formed. Still, she had reached a woman’s full height and a woman’s figure … but she couldn’t have been more than twenty, probably younger by a year or two. And there was something in her face, in her halfhearted, birdlike gestures, that bespoke uncertainty and fear.
In her eyes, though … there was nothing. Her eyes were armored as surely as Benoic’s … whatever it was under his armor was. Nobody would get anything from those eyes.
If he had been a Sim, Benoic would have frowned before going back to his work. However, he never got the opportunity — and not because he wasn’t a Sim, either, but instead because Lady Guinevere chose that moment to throw open the door and sail into the little anteroom before Sir Lancelot’s study, the room where they were sitting. “Benoic, have you seen –”
She stopped dead, looking around the small family with something very like astonishment. “Oh! My! No one mentioned we had visitors!”
None of the so-called visitors replied. The girl ducked into a hurried curtsey; the boy first tugged at his forelock and then tried a clumsy bow. The three children on the bench didn’t move, all seeming too scared to breathe.
As for Lady Guinevere, she surveyed them with a wry half-smile that never went farther than the corner of her mouth. “At ease,” she said. The elder girl and boy both stared at her with eyes wide with dread.
Lady Guinevere placed her hands on her hips, leaned back on her heels, and surveyed the five before her. “I’m Lady Guinevere,” she said. “And I suppose you’re here to see my husband?”
The girl spoke first. “Aye, ma–m’lady.” Her voice was slow and rough, and she paid no attention to the brief glare the boy sent her.
“Let me guess — refugees? Hoping to make a home in Avilion?” The boy nodded, but before either he or the girl could speak, Lady Guinevere grinned. “Well, I hope you decide to stay with us! We’ve got lots of good land here that could use farming. My husband’s also planning to build up the coast, once my daughter tells him just how the docks are supposed to be, if you’d prefer to make your livings in trade.”
Both the boy’s and girl’s jaws dropped, probably to hear a noblewoman talking so candidly about trade and the idea that they might be able to decide how they would prefer to make their own living.
But Lady Guinevere gave them no time to recover from that. Instead, she turned to the children on the bench. “And you, my lads and lass! What are you doing sitting here?” Benoic could see the children’s eyes widen, and the youngest-looking boy, the redhead on the end of the bench, looked about to cry. “Why,” Lady Guinevere continued, “it’s a beautiful spring day out there! Wouldn’t you rather be playing in the gardens?”
All three of the children gasped, and the little girl’s eyes lit up with hope. She cast a pleading look at her sister and brother.
The eldest girl twisted her hands together. “M’lady, they couldn’t trespass on yer good will like that …”
“Trespass? Don’t be silly! What are gardens made for, if not for children to run through?”
The girl’s eyes went wide, but after a moment, she gulped and nodded. “If ye please, m’lady, then they can go out and play.”
“And I do please. Now, shoo, you three!” Benoic couldn’t see it, but he knew that Lady Guinevere was grinning broadly. The blonde little boy and the little girl were both grinning at Lady Guinevere in reply. The redhead seemed not to know what to think or how to look. “Go out and have some fun!”
It didn’t take long for the children to take her at her word, skipping merrily through the corridors of the castle.
“Be careful, ye!” called the boy. “Don’t be hurtin’ any of the plants or flowers!”
“Oh, nonsense! Do what you please, kids!” called Lady Guinevere. She added to the elder boy, almost apologetically, “My kids all grew out of destroying the gardens too early for my taste — and unfortunately, my grandkids haven’t quite grown into it yet. They’re still at the age where if they pick up dirt, you better get out of their hands quick, before they try to eat it.”
The girl and boy could do little more than nod in self-defense.
Lady Guinevere sent a shrewd glance at them, then asked, “And just how long have my husband and son, love them though I do, kept you waiting?”
“Not long!” the girl chirped, trying to smile.
Lady Guinevere raised one eyebrow, put her hands on her hips, and surveyed both of them. Then she went over, opened the door to the study, and called inside, “Lance, Will, you’ve got refugees waiting out here to see you — are you about ready?”
“Oh, blast! The Ruskins! Come in, come in — I’m so sorry about that!” called Sir Lancelot.
Benoic watched the girl and boy — the Ruskins — walk into the room, their jaws hanging open. The door clicked shut behind them. He would have returned to his work, but Lady Guinevere was standing in the middle of the floor, tapping her foot and frowning.
Finally she sighed. “Blast,” she murmured. “Wouldn’t you know it, I’ve completely forgotten what I came in here for.”
As they came in, Lancelot got his first good look at Glenna and Seumas Ruskin.
He knew who they were, at least the official stories, and he knew how they had gotten over the border into Albion. Galahad had been helping out with the refugees who were able to make their way into Albion, and he had told Lancelot all about it. After all, it was too soon for Arthur’s threat to have had any effect on the Robertians. Brother Timothy may not have even made it back yet. The Ruskins had crossed over before that happened, anyway.
It had happened like this, according to Galahad: the youngest boy, Peadar, had caught a flux. That sort of thing was common enough in camps of that nature, and had bothered nobody except for his family. Then his oldest sister, Glenna, had caught some sort of disease that caused a great deal of vomiting. That was much more worrying — it was one thing for the very young and the very old to sicken, but a young woman in her prime? Any attempts to determine whether the Ruskins were “legitimate” refugees were stopped, they were practically forced at sword-point over the border, and they were dumped on the Albionese. However, a few days in a warm house and being fed good food, along with Brother Andy’s ministrations, had cured them both, and Lancelot was poised to snap them up.
If they would consent to be snapped, that is.
Lancelot cleared his throat, glad that he had the desk to hide his sweaty palms under. “So! You must be wondering who we are. I am Sir Lancelot, and this is my son, Sir William.” Lancelot grinned broadly, and he hoped that Glenna and Seumas wouldn’t take Will’s smaller smile as being unfriendly. “And you two would be …?”
“Seumas Ruskin, sir, son of Alastair and Peigi Ruskin,” replied the boy. “And this is my sister, Glenna.”
Glenna glanced at her brother, rolled her eyes, and turned back to Lancelot. “Brother Galahad sent us here, m’lord. He said he were — your son?”
“You can’t see the resemblance?” Lancelot laughed. “Ah, but if my hair were still black, you would! Unfortunately, raising him — and his sister — and his brother — seems to have chased that all away.”
Glenna’s eyes dropped to her dress. “I–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean no disrespect, m’lord …”
Will spoke, for the first time. “And none was felt, I assure you. We do not do things … that way, here in Albion. Certainly not in Avilion.” Lancelot scarcely had time to blink and try to turn to see what Will was getting at before Will spoke again. “Here, we prefer to govern with … reason. And common sense.”
“Aye, because Lord knows it’s hard enough to govern with a modicum of sense,” Lancelot agreed, even though he knew he’d have to get out of Will later what it was that was upsetting him so. Something from his trip to Glasonland, he sensed. “Heaven help us if he tried to govern without it.” He flashed another smile to Glenna and Seumas, and this time, Glenna unbent enough to smile back at him. “But! Anyway, you’ll want to know what I’m offering in terms of indentures, so you’ll have an idea of what it is on the table if you want to go shopping around.”
Brother and sister shot glances at each other. Before Seumas could speak, though — and he did looked chagrined by it — Glenna asked, “Shop — shop around, m’lord?”
“Well, aye, I assumed that’s what you and your brother would be doing …” Lancelot replied, mystified. “After all, you could go to anyone in the kingdom you chose!”
“We — could?” asked Seumas, beating his sister to the punch.
“You’ve no indentures here,” Will answered. “You’re free to go where you please. You could go to Camelot, if you liked, and try to set yourself up and find work there. Or you could stay here, and not become indentured. It’s your choice.”
Seumas’s jaw had fallen, and Lancelot could see a spark lighting in his eyes. But Glenna only laughed, the hard, bitter laugh of someone who had stared into the abyss and seen it staring back into her. Then she slapped a hand over her mouth and stared panicked at the lord and his son.
Lancelot smiled with sympathy. “I take it that you considered that approach already?”
“No, we hadn’t!” Seumas protested. He turned to his sister. “Glenna, we could be free! Free! Free ter go where we please, an’ live where we want, an’ run a business without the lord’s permission –”
“An’ starve,” interrupted Glenna. “An’ if ye want ter do that, Seumas, feel free — but I ain’t doin’ that to Beatris an’ Niven an’ Peadar.”
Seumas leaned back, arms crossed before his chest in a classic adolescent sulk. “We wouldn’t starve …”
“With three little kids? An’ no money, an’ no lodgin’, an’ nothin’ but the clothes on our backs? What d’ye think would happen? We’d all grow rich an’ live happily ever after?” She snorted. “Not likely.”
“But …” Seumas protested. He set his brows mulishly. “Glenna, ye know Papa would’ve –”
“Pa ain’t here. Neither is Ma. Neither is …” Glenna looked away. “Lots o’ people …”
Something had to happen to break the tension. Lancelot turned to Seumas, “If it makes you feel better, S-Seumas — do you mind if I call you that? — if it makes you feel better, I’ve never made a habit of telling those indentured to me what crops to plant.”
The boy blinked. “M–m’lord?”
Lancelot shrugged. “I know that was — is — the custom in Glasonland, but here in Albion … well …” Lancelot scratched his head. “I’ve never had a problem admitting what I don’t know — and I don’t know a thing about farming. I don’t know what crops will do best, and what won’t, but I know that my father before me and I both saw peasants break their backs trying to farm what the lord thought was best, even if some other crop would have been easier — or more profitable! And the lords would often bankrupt themselves, too, because they weren’t willing to listen to their men and try new things. So, when we came here, we did away with that, and we let our men plant what they wanted in their own fields. And sooner or later …”
When our peasants took a few good gambles and started making money hand over fist, which meant we did, too …
“… the other nobles came around to our way of thinking.”
Even Bors had. As for the new generation — William, Lamorak, Mordred, Elyan — it would never occur to them to do it any other way. And Baron Ferreira? From what Baron Ferreira had said about his lands, or rather, from what he didn’t say about his lands, Lancelot got the impression that he had foisted all the farming duties off onto Neil Porter and was glad to not have to worry about it.
And Arthur? Arthur had been the cleverest of all. When Jeremiah Thatcher had had that unfortunate stint as a Plantsim, Arthur had gone and placed all Plantsims in the kingdom under Royal protection. For now, he did not cultivate too many of his own lands, preferring to collect rents and taxes from the nobles, but if he ever did, he would have the best labor force in the country. And when it came to Plantsims and crops, it was always best to let them just get on with it, so Lancelot suspected that Arthur — or Tom — would do just that.
As for Glenna and Seumas, they stared at Lancelot in surprise. “So … we’d be able to grow whatever we wanted? With no complaints from ye, m’lord?”
“As long as the taxes and rents are paid … well, frankly, what business is it of mine?” shrugged Lancelot. “Especially on your own plots of land. Isn’t that right, Will?”
“Aye,” Will replied.
“Of course, on my lands, which I’d ask you to help farm …”
Both Glenna and Seumas hung their heads, but they nodded.
Lancelot coughed. “Er — that is to say, I’d ask one of you to help farm — well, there I’d have the final say, of course. But I’m quite willing to take advice, especially from Sims who know better.” The way Lancelot had managed his wealth, all these years, was to take advice from his indentured men quite liberally — after he had seen them try out the principle on their own land. Many of them were quite willing to do this, if the principle was a good one. “And …” Lancelot frowned. “Seumas — did you say something about owning a shop?”
“It’s just that, well, I’ve got a shop, on my lands — it’s where I sell a lot of my produce, because it’s much more profitable that way — and if you like, you can work there, at least some of the time, and gain some practical experience that way.”
Glenna’s jaw fell. “Ye’d let him do that?” she gasped.
“Aye,” Lancelot replied.
“Why — ye’ve a problem with that, Glenna?” Seumas snapped.
“But — but if he did that — if he started a shop — he could buy himself out! Be a freeman! M’lord … this must be too good ter be true!”
“Hardly,” Lancelot replied. “The better you do, the better I do — as long as you stay in Avilion, of course. But I try to be fair and just to all of my men, and reasonable on taxes and such — so I hope you would stay.” Lancelot smiled. “But if you succeed, then so do I. So why wouldn’t I help you to succeed?”
Seumas didn’t reply. Neither did Glenna. Instead, they both looked at Lancelot as if he had gone mad — but was nonetheless making a startling amount of sense.
Noblemen in Glasonland did not see it this way, Lancelot knew. They kept the people poor because they thought that would make them rich. They kept wages low and grew the same crops year after year, selling them for the same prices (more or less), earning the same income. They played it safe, because to take risks, to innovate — that was not what knights and nobles did. Let merchants try new and different ways to make money. Nobles would stick to what was proven by time, what had worked.
Lancelot wondered how long that system would stick around in Glasonland after the civil war. They were due for a shake-up. Perhaps this would be the shake-up required.
It was certainly causing a shake-up for Glenna and Seumas, by the way they looked at each other, calculatingly, as if each was trying to beat the other to the right conclusion.
Glenna swallowed and spoke first. “M’lord … ye mean that? Ye’d — ye’d want us ter do well? An’ … succeed?”
“An’ ye’d let me work in yer shop?” Seumas put in. “An’ maybe, someday, if I get enough money fer it, have a shop o’ me own? An’ — an’ — buy me way out? If I can?”
“Yes,” Lancelot replied.
“Would ye swear that on — on the Good Book?” Glenna asked, her cheeks flaming. She wouldn’t meet his eyes as she asked. “An’ — an’ Sir William, too?”
“Yes,” Will answered, for both of them. That seemed to surprise the Ruskins even more than Lancelot’s original offer had. Perhaps they had attributed it to senility?
Glenna gulped. “Then — then, m’lord, I think we’d — we’d love ter accept yer kind offer ter make us yer … yer folks.”
She wouldn’t meet Seumas’s eyes as she spoke. But she needn’t have taken that precaution. Seumas was beaming. Glenna would get no arguments from that quarter.
And Lancelot was glad of that — glad for Glenna, glad for Seumas, glad for all those other children they brought up. He jumped up, causing Glenna to startle and wilt in her seat, watching him with huge eyes. “Excellent! Welcome aboard, Glenna — and you too, Seumas!”
He held out his hand for a shake. Glenna watched it as if she were afraid it might grow claws and scratch her. But slowly, she stood up, and slowly, she put her hand in his. She barely held on, except by the tips of her fingers.
Her smile, though, was genuine enough. “Thank’ee, m’lord. We’re glad ter be here.”